How a Stanford med student used her experiences to write a heist

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Grace D. Li is the author of “Portrait of a Thief”.

(Yi Li)

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit as Grace D. Li completed her first year of medical school. She found herself stuck at home, taking lessons on Zoom and forbidden to set foot in a hospital.

“It was the most devastating medical disaster of the last century, and there was nothing I could do to help,” she recalls.

Frustrated, the 26-year-old Stanford medical student turned to a passion project waiting on her computer: a novel she had started a few years earlier. The result East “Portrait of a thief”, a heist this week that revolves around frantic action, fast cars and a thoughtful exploration of Western colonialism and the complexities of Chinese diaspora identities.

The story of why Li turned to fiction in a crisis — and pursued two seemingly opposite career paths — has as many twists and turns as Li’s novel, born out of his experiences as a scientist and writer. , of American descent and ethnically Chinese.

For Li, who is entering her third year of medical school this summer, her career choices are not contradictory. “Despite the differences between medicine and writing,” she says in a recent conversation, “Both require deep, thoughtful thinking about the world and the people in it.”

The premise of “Portrait of a Thief” is deceptively simple. The novel’s main character, Will Chen, is a Harvard art history student who witnesses the theft of Chinese artifacts from a campus museum by an organized team who leaves him an intriguing business card. This experience and a racist encounter with cops investigating the crime prompt Chen to contact the CEO of a shadowy Chinese government-backed conglomerate. The CEO offers $50 million for Chen and his group of hand-picked students to steal five bronze zodiac heads that once adorned a fountain in Beijing’s Old Summer Palace.

As unlikely as this setup may seem, Li says the inspiration for his heist novel came from a true story.

After graduating from Duke University with a major in biology and a minor in creative writing, Li accepted a two-year assignment with Teach for America in New York. She taught biology in the Bronx and led a high school’s first creative writing program. When she was applying for medical school, she read a newspaper article about the robbery of Chinese jade and gold artifacts from a museum in the South West of England.

Li, whose parents emigrated from China in the 1990s, says the story “struck me deeply”. Digging deeper, she learned that such thefts, from museums in Sweden, Norway, England and France, had begun nearly a decade earlier. Thieves targeted priceless Chinese antiquities that had been stolen in 1860 by French and English invaders who ransacked and looted the Old Summer Palace, a constellation of 200 ornate palaces, pavilions, courtyards and gardens, before burning the complex. The three-day conflagration sparked 21st-century China’s challenges over the provenance of artifacts on display in Western museums, an attempt by wealthy Chinese and government-backed corporations to recover stolen items. at auction, and speculation that treasures recovered from European museums over the past decade had been “stolen to order” by those intending to repatriate the art to China.

Li says the whirlwind of stories “made me wonder if I could have been one of those thieves.” The tantalizing possibilities tapped into his love of popular culture, including heist movies and the “Fast and Furious” film franchise, and ignited his romance.

Although “Portrait” reflects Li’s interests, as a good scientist, she filled in the gaps with research. She studied the history of Chinese art, how to make bronze sculptures and the collections, locations and arrangements of European museums that housed some of the disputed artifacts. At Stanford, she immersed herself in contemporary art and museum operations while serving as a pre-pandemic tour guide for campus art museums. She also found mentors and community in college Medicine and Muse Programthat supports diversity and the integration of the arts and humanities in medical education.

Li’s hard work paid off: Managing editor Amber Oliver acquired “Portrait” in 2021 for Phoebe Robinson’s publisher Tiny Reparations Books. As one of Stanford’s MedScholars, Li received furlough and funding to complete her novel, which she did during those frustrating early days of the pandemic.

Li will join a small but distinguished club of doctors who write mystery novels. Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Crichton and Tess Gerritsen have all balanced medical careers – using their left brains – with creative right brain fiction that makes readers’ blood run cold. Li acknowledges the debt she owes to these trailblazers who “helped me realize that a career like this was possible.”

Armed with this knowledge and the encouragement of her publisher, Li focused on her characters who are amateurs but also archetypes of heist novels. There is Chen, the brain; his sister Irene, a public policy specialist who can get away with anything; Lily Wu, Irene’s roommate, the getaway car driver and a Duke student who enjoys street racing; Alex Huang, the team’s fledgling hacker and an MIT dropout; and Will’s best friend Daniel, a medical student who has an inside track as the son of an FBI agent assigned to art crimes.

Although Li uses gender archetypes and tropes, she has not relied on them to tell a larger, more personal story about the wide range of identities within the Chinese diaspora.

"Portrait of a thief" book cover.

(‎Small repair books)

“Everyone thinks of Chinese identity as a monolith,” she says, “but there is enormous diversity among Chinese Americans in terms of language, personal identity, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. how they see themselves in relation to China. There is no idea what it means to be Chinese.

The Great Chinese Art Heist team, as the students call themselves, reflects this reality. Four are American, hailing from California, New York and Li’s native Texas; Daniel, born in Beijing, is a naturalized American citizen. Li’s students are idealistic enough to compartmentalize their crimes with Western cultures and colonialism in mind. But they also recognize that the thefts will bring enormous wealth and the ability to breaking free from crippling student loans and, more importantly, the structured lives mapped out by their families – “the open future,” Li writes, like the precious artifacts they steal.

“Portrait” garnered enough early buzz that Netflix picked up the book for a TV adaptation, with Li serving as executive producer. It’s an exciting but liminal space for a medical student committed to health equity for underserved patients and a book tour that includes an April 24 appearance at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. She says of her debut, “I hope ‘Portrait’ invites conversation about how history continues to influence the present, as well as illuminating the complexities and joys of the Sino-Chinese experience. American – all wrapped up in a story as thrilling as a heist.

Li also shared that she was starting a new romance. Continuing to mix art and science, she plans to place it at – where else? — Stanford School of Medicine.

“Portrait of a Thief”

By Grace D. Li

Small repair books: 375 pages, $26

Woods is a book reviewer, editor, and author of several anthologies and novels, including the mystery series Detective Charlotte Justice.

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